Friday, October 4, 2013

Free Falling: GRAVITY

A relentlessly suspenseful technical exercise, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a visual marvel. It tells a story of survival as a space shuttle is destroyed by a cloud of debris mid-space walk, leaving two astronauts adrift. For the next 90 minutes or so, they scramble to survive in a plot that’s spare and tough, unblinkingly and unceasingly orbiting with these imperiled characters. It’s just one thing after another going wrong, the cold hard cruelty of physics throwing ever more obstacles in the way. The film is an absorbing astonishment of virtuoso visual expression and aural detail. The plot is so simple and yet the feeling of floating unmoored and unprotected in the dead of space, scrambling to find some way, any way to safety is harrowing and overwhelming. The sense of isolation and sensory alienation is vast and impressive, a tension that tightens early and doesn’t even begin to let up until barely before the end credits roll.

I would describe the film as containing sequences of sensational special effects, but it’s more accurate to describe the entire film as one fluid effects sequence. Cuarón’s camera, guided by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, floats freely and smoothly in long takes in stunning 3D that contain staggering amounts of visual information, subtle details of stars twinkling in the far background as our planet sits below, the astronauts walking outside their spacecraft near foreground. Careful attention is paid to the ripple effects of one motion in the void of space, tethers twisting, metal shifting, a screw slowly floating away once loosened from its position. The opening scene has tranquility about it, a subdued sense of motion as if the characters were simply underwater. It is silence and perspective that shows otherwise. When the first wave of debris hits, disaster unfolds in eerie near-total silence, metal ripped to ribbons and twisting in the vacuum of space with nary a sound but the ragged gasps and exclamations of the panicked survivors.

It’s a scenario that’s instantly chilling. As the actors in the suits, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney need not push too hard to make the sense of peril and hopelessness known, surrounded as they are by so much black, cold space. As performers, they’re two of the most naturally likable screen presences around, but though that’s part of the attraction here, they’re also delivering terrific pared down performances. These are impressive physical performances, fit and expressive in movements and body language, working seamlessly within precisely calibrated shots filled with exacting and convincing computer generated detail. Bullock especially does fantastic work here, for a character in which determination and hopelessness exist in close proximity, a mournful resignation that’s scraped away by steely determination. It’s all about the essentials. They’re people struggling to survive, all business, but for some light conversation that attempts to flesh out a token amount of backstory. Their characters move forward, proceeding to the next logical step, then the next. I found myself wondering how they could possibly get out of this situation.

The events of the film seem completely rigorously plausible, at least within the heightened movie nature of it all. As I’m not a scientist – far from it – I can’t comment on that further or more specifically. But the film proceeds with a cool, observational approach to its resolution that both makes sense and provides constant surprise from the characters’ combinations of resourcefulness and skill. The wonder of the film is not the characters behaviors or even, strictly speaking, the events of the plot. The film’s constant astonishment is the way it is shown, in smoothly composed shots of seamless digital amazement. There are moments I can’t wait to see again, mostly to wrap my head around the complexity with which they unfold, quickly and gracefully, as I gaped at the screen trying to process it all.

Cuarón has always been something of a visual master, from his sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men (2006) and fantasy adaptations A Little Princess (1995) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) to even something as deceptively grounded as his earthy relationship drama Y Tu Mamá También (2001). His camera’s curiosity and exquisitely choreographed (and digitally assisted) fluidity in conjunction with his characters’ inner lives is his trademark source of amazement. In Gravity, he pushes the visual immersion of his style as far as it has ever been. It is the work of one of our most visually accomplished filmmakers showing off. Its rigorous simplicity is a constant source of wonderment. Nothing more or less than a feat of technology creating an impressive, immersive experience, I spent Gravity in a state of tense awe.

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